I just got my hands on a real-live Xbox One and played a pre-release Forza 5 for several minutes. It sure looks impressive, with all the annoying details of real driving — glare, reflections, crap on your car — and there's a whole new physics engine and radically new approaches to AI. But it still felt like Forza.
First off, let me answer everyone's big question: yes, there are hot-air balloons in Forza 5. You can't pilot them, but they're there, so you can relax. Plus, there's also a dramatically upgraded physics engine, much more detailed graphics, and a whole new AI system that Microsoft says isn't really AI.
I was at a Microsoft event last night where I got to talk to folks on the team, including design director Bill Giese. The new game, which runs only on the new Xbox One, still keeps to the Forza formula we all know and many of us love, but adds a great deal in visuals, physics, and their not-really-AI AI for other cars.
To do many of these things, the system leverages its constant connectivity to the cloud, and Microsoft must have told employees to keep referencing it to Bing, since I was told the cloud-computing algorithms used are "like Bing's" over and over again.
But first let's cover what's most noticeably different visually, in an optical sense, to eyeballs, via sight. Though seeing. And vision. The graphics engine. It's clearly improved (all at 1080P/60 FPS), but the manner by which it's improved is a bit more subtle. The current Forza isn't a slouch in the visuals department, with screenshots being almost indistinguishable from photos in a number of cases.
What Microsoft has done is to take the cars out of the "uncanny valley" they were falling into. There was plenty of detail before, but everything was still a bit too slick, too perfect. Things didn't look quite real. This effect happens more obviously to human figures, where you end up with detail but nightmare-inducing dead-eye'd puppets like those creepy-ass kids from The Polar Express or something.
For cars it's a bit less creepy, but still a factor. To combat this, most of the improvements in Forza 5 have been focused on making the cars look, well, crappier. But that's a good thing. By crappier I mean more like real materials — orange peel on paint, machining marks on metals, rubber and oil and other detrius being stuck to a car after a run, and — though we didn't get to see it last night — a dynamic dust layer.
And while the models do have about 25% more polygons than before, that has less to do with the sense of realism you get than the imperfections in the paint, the separate, damagable layers of paint and clearcoat, and the incredible attention to light effects and reflections.
You can get annoyed by light in your face in the game just like when you're driving into the sunset in real, tedious life. I suggested an option to drop the visor, but I'm not sure if they'll add that in. You see your hands and the dash reflected on the windshield, brightwork on instruments causes real glare, air can look leaden and dense, just like real air. The visuals are strikingly good.
Oh, and there's lots of lens flare, because everyone loves that.
The damage modeling has been improved as well, so you no longer just get those generic grey-metal streaks on your car when you clip a guard rail. The deformations and surface damage look much better. For me that's half the fun, horribly mistreating these beautiful cars that cost more than all your organs with zero consequences.
The other big visual change is that the backgrounds and environments are now much more detailed and dynamic. In previous Forza games the spectators have been like hordes of sex dolls bungie-corded into groups, just standing around looking uncomfortable. In Forza 5, the spectators now seem like actual people, and do things like cheer and barbecue, even, with actual smoke, and, pending the upcoming peripherals, smell. I'm assuming they must have some guy doing smell modeling — burning rubber, exhaust, grilling burgers — it would add so much.
And, like I mentioned at the beginning, the skies are now populated. Helicopters, hot air balloons, confetti, and I was even told there's tracks with what looks like "a zepplin battle" happening in the air.
The physics have undergone some major reworking as well, mostly thanks to Microsoft/Turn 10's collaboration with Calspan, the research and testing laboratory founded in 1943 by the old Curtiss-Wright aircraft company. Calspan is one of the premier engineering and aerospace testing and analysis companies, and Microsoft approached them when they realized how little data tire companies had for how their tires perform at extreme (10%+ over peak, extreme drift conditions, etc.) conditions.
The partnership with an independent laboratory freed them from collaborating with one manufacturer as before, and now data is gathered from any number of tires. Other components like suspension behavior, road surfaces, aerodynamic forces and more have all been tested far more extensively, and all that data has been made available for the new physics engine to use.
The engineer was clearly very proud of this, and maintained that the research they're doing is not just the best ever done for games, it's the most comprehensive for the world. Apparently all this was key to their inclusion of open-wheel cars, which require more information about tire flex, carbon fiber flexing, and I'm sure all kinds of other flexing as well.
Will you notice the difference? Maybe? It's pretty hard to say, at this point.
The other big change is that not-AI thing I mentioned before. They're still calling this "driveatars" but what's going on now is that Forza will be very creepily stalking you, watching you, learning from you. Probably writing erotic fan fiction about you as well.
As you drive, the system learns your habits, your driving character, and then uses that to build the behavior of your drivatar, which will then go on to race other people independently, but with a driving style informed by you. And the same goes when you drive — you'll be competing against other players cars, with the other players own paint schemes and all that, and driving like those other players drive.
My big concern is that if I suck, now everyone will be able to see that, all over the world, as my robot-doppleganger car sucks on tracks against other people all over the world. Oh boy.
It seems the driving your replicant-car does gives you credits, so that's nice, I suppose, if you like a driving game that you don't even have to drive. It sounds impressive, and they assured me that if you let a friend drive and he/she does nothing but run into walls, it won't affect your overall behavior enough to worry about. And it won't count at all if he or she doesn't finish the race, so be ready to yank those plugs out of walls when you have friends over. There should also be better guest profiles as well, I was told.
I did finally get to play it a bit — but not for long, and with a limited set of cars on only their Prague track, which was lovely. I did see there are multiple leagues, including a vintage league, so that's a nice plus.
In actual gameplay, it's not that different feeling than Forza 4 is now. There's some nice force-feeback in the triggers, so you can feel the brake pulse or the gas judder as you get wheelspin, but the regular hand controller is pretty much as you know it. Yes, it looks much better, but in the short bursts I could play, I didn't feel anything truly radically different.
Still, I only got to play a very short time, and it was quite fun. I'm looking forward to trying it out in more depth at some point soon. I'm thinking around 2030, when my kid's finally moving out and I have time to play these damn things again. I'll set a Craigslist reminder to pick up an Xbox One in about a decade or so.